Jack Stevens is a British photographer specialized in food photography and living in Prague. We’ve asked him about his past, preset and future plans.
Hello Jack! Could you introduce yourself to our readers?
Hey! My name is Jack Stevens.
I’m originally from England, but I’m currently living in the Czech Republic’s beautiful capital: Prague. I’m a food and beverage photographer by trade, but my hobby and passion has always been landscapes and cityscapes. I am currently using Fujifilm’s XT-2 camera with their 18-55mm kit lens (a great tool for building the foundation of your photography, before overwhelming yourself with the array of lens Fujifilm have to offer).
Being a British photographer living in Prague, I frequently get asked two questions: “Why do you photograph?” and, “Why did you move to Prague?”
And actually, there are three reasons I photograph: To be creative, to capture memories, and to do what I love for a living. Could you think of anything better than to be paid for something you love to do? It’s a dream I hold along with many other creators.
Secondly, I moved to Prague because it’s one of the most photogenic cities in Europe! You can find unique pieces of architecture with every street corner and cobbled roads that just oozes history. Additionally, the city is just the perfect dream when it comes to compositions and lightning.
So – as you can imagine – spending most of 2020 stranded in Prague wasn’t a big issue for me. My favorite capture so far holds more sentimental value than perhaps quality.
My favorite picture so far was taken back when I was still easing into my new Fujifilm XT-2 and after a day wandering around cafes and restaurants, I found myself chasing what I could tell would be perhaps a “once in a year”-sunset. Together with my girlfriend, we ran up to Vítkov Hill to witness this surreal sunset! The sun was bursting with a spectrum of colors, and the clouds balanced it perfectly across the sky. Catching this with the perfect company and my camera in hand was the perfect moment in time. A memory I will never forget.
Could you tell us about your first introduction to photography? What’s your backstory?
When I was 16 years old, I left school with a mixture of thoughts: Should I go to university? What should I study after my final year? What’s the plan? The truth is, like a handful of 16-year-olds, I really wasn’t sure.
I finally decided to pick three subjects to study at college, one of them being photography. I spent two years playing and experimenting with Canon SLR cameras at school. My goal was to learn everything about zoom bursts, long exposure/light trails, ISO, apertures, people, landscapes, the list goes on.
After college, I realized that it’s perhaps not something I could gamble on as a line of work, so I jumped into the world of hospitality. Fast forward to June 2018, when I wanted to get back in touch with my creative side and bought a new smartphone. A Huawei P20 Pro with a 40MP, f1.8 (27mm wide) camera which shoots in RAW.
After purchasing it, I immediately took it out for a spin because I was a bit skeptical of smartphone cameras and whether they can rival the world of DSLRs. At that time, there was still a clear margin, but each year it gets smaller.
I still remember my first landscape shot that I was genuinely happy with. It was taken in October 2018 around Dorset in the UK when I was driving home from a shift, and the sun was starting to disappear behind the hills. I pulled over to see what I could create, and I was so pleased with the reflection of the light in the still water and the sun peeking over the top! I couldn’t wait to get back home and play in Lightroom and upload it to Instagram. The final edit got such a good reaction I felt proud about the progress I was making.
I spent a year with my phone, revisiting what I had learned at college, trying to perfect compositions in different locations, and expanding my editing knowledge via Adobe Lightroom. I started to progress with my work to the point friends began to ask what DSLR camera I was using. This story’s moral is that equipment is only one variable that influences you to be creative.
In 2019 I moved to Prague, where I worked as a Bartender on one of Prague’s busy tourist streets. I realized that perhaps I could consider photography as an extra income source and maybe even evolve it into a career. I knew that if I was going to try to be a Freelance Photographer, I needed to invest in better quality equipment. I took on extra shifts at the restaurant to earn as much money as possible, hoping I could put enough money together before the year was out. December 2019 came round, and I bought myself a Fujifilm XT-2, an 18-55mm lens, and a Vanguard tripod as a New Year gift.
I haven’t looked back ever since. I decided to pursue Food and Beverage photography as I experimented in this niche for the last year at work. It made sense; a decade in hospitality had shown me that people are swayed by what they see, so surely I could apply my experience to visual content. It worked; I’ve been doing small gigs in Prague ever since, and I haven’t stopped with my landscape/cityscape work.
Since starting, how did you develop your style?
Styles, themes, and experiments are topics photographers regularly talk about because Portfolios, Instagram grids, websites, and other outlets all revolve around them.
I would say my style depends the most on how I edit my photos. Perhaps that’s because I spent more time editing when I was using my Huawei, but editing can make the difference! You can change anything from Flat Black and Whites to colorful Teal and Oranges. The same goes when masking and using gradients: it helps you to edit an image and manipulate how a person looks at your composition.
It takes so much time and effort to find something you like as a creator and to discover what works best for the niche you are interested in. The best thing about photography is that there is no right, no wrong, and no limit to what you can do!
What helped me the most was sticking to a specific setting until I understood exactly what it does. I did this for the three most important setting you can find on a camera: ISO, shutter speed, and aperture. This process helped me obtain higher quality images.
Over the years, It has taken me a lot of experimenting with different setups and post-processing techniques. But it got me to where I am today, and I am only so far down a long road of experiences. I’ve failed with some styles that I thought would be relatively easy to replicate, and I’ve succeeded with other styles of which I thought I’d never be able to reproduce.
My most significant learning curve was learning what settings can decrease your images’ quality: I used to shoot with such a high ISO in low light situations to capture post-sunset colors. This meant I would keep my aperture around f10/12/14 to hold the landscape’s detail, but it was still underexposed. Then I discovered how handy a tripod is to landscape photography! It allowed me to leave my shutter open for ½, 1, 5, and 30 seconds, which resulted in a much lower ISO and kept all the detail in my shots.
Finally, I learned how important it was to be prepared because no one likes to turn up to a shoot with an uncharged battery or corrupt memory card.
Since starting, what has worked to attract fans and followers?
“How do I boost my followers?”, “Why doesn’t anyone like my work?”, … Yes, I’ve also asked these questions in the past, and to be quite frankly: it’s a topic that brings either frustration or happiness.
By now, we all know the feeling when Instagram’s algorithm makes you question your abilities. You just have to remember Instagram isn’t there to judge your work. Instead, it’s there to help you advertise your work! If your picture doesn’t score as it used to, it’s probably because you didn’t exploit the latest hashtags or didn’t tag the right account, but it’s no real reflection on your work.
I spent months trying to look into ways to boost my audience on Instagram, and the best thing I found is to do three things;
- Use all your allowed hashtags.
- Engage with communities.
- Keep to a genre or style.
You should also take a look at your audience on Instagram and what statistics they can give you.
- If you are following some serious photographers or influences, you’ll notice they post at certain times of the day. This is so that their work is published when more followers are online, resulting in a higher engagement rate.
- Take note of the age range that follows you and combine your imagery with relatable captions.
I’ve seen some photographers at the lower end of the quality and ability scale with thousands of followers and other creators with incredible work and just a handful of followers. The world we live in today makes us feel that it is such an essential part of our growth when it’s only one of many ways to be recognized. People can pay for followers or use the hashtag “#followforafollow”, but that will never really be a way of stimulating interest in your work, it’s just another number.
If you’re serious about what you do, especially from a career/business point of view, you’ll have a website. A website is the equivalent of the hardback portfolio from 15 years ago.
Another creative way to get noticed is collaborating with another creator, and it even allows you to gain extra experience. Reach out to them, find someone who has a similar style to you or a genre you have in common, and engage. Perhaps, if they are local to you, arrange a shoot together and exchange tips and ideas, if it’s OK with both parties to experiment with each other’s kit. This is a great way to get recommendations or just to be recognized on another platform. Engage, learn, grow.
Through starting as a photographer, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
I’ve been passionate about landscapes and cities even before I picked up a camera. I have always been obsessed with how the light can illuminate specific parts of the terrain, or how a car reflects on lakes or windows.
The truth is, no matter how hard you try to get it right, there is always an element of luck. In my experience alone, I have missed incredible skies by deciding to bail on a walk and taken some fantastic sunset shots when taking a last-minute gamble to venture to a new location.
Be sure to always allow yourself to make something, don’t shy away because you’re not in the mood or it’s raining. Timing is the other key to success for all genres of photography. Portrait photographers will only have half a second during a shoot to get that perfect candid shot of a genuine laugh. In contrast, automotive photographers may get a millisecond to capture Lewis Hamilton as he flies by at Silverstone.
I have already mentioned how being prepared as a photographer helps with your quality of service and reputation. However, I haven’t told you all the ‘dos and don’ts’ that I have learned, so here’s a couple.
- Pack up the night before, and don’t leave anything to chance. Believe me; you don’t want to arrive at a location and realize your battery isn’t charged.
- Don’t become a creature of habit. Keep looking at new styles and subjects, this will help your progression.
- Throw yourself into unfamiliar situations and learn how to cope with conditions and constraints; it will only help you become a better photographer.
What’s your most significant achievement so far?
The work we do is often monitored by achievements and the sweet taste of accomplishment. However, if you ask any photographer what they regard as one of their highest achievements, it’s not always an award or a big payout from a client, which they’ll mention: often it’s a personal achievement.
What do you want from your work? What truly makes you happy about photography? What or who inspires you? Consider these kinds of questions and create your own goals. Setting goals is an excellent way of boosting your confidence and output, but make sure it’s about your progress and not matching it against someone else’s work because this will cause more disappointment than anything.
I have one real goal above everything else in photography: I want to do what I love for the rest of my life as a professional job. I mean that I have no real intentions to become famous or an influencer, but I want to turn my hobby into a full time job, that’s my golden goal and why I spend so much time learning and advancing my skill set.
How are you doing today, and what does the future look like?
So, another year has started, and I have several things planned to help me achieve my goals over the coming months.
- I will be putting together my next collection of landscape work, which will be available for purchase in early January 2021. This has been something I had meant to do, and finally, I’ve finished the last couple of edits to upload.
- I will be freshening up my strategy for work in Prague. We are currently witnessing constraints across the country, with hospitality establishments either being closed or heavily restricted with their operational hours. Having said that, I live in the city center with an array of different places to visit and offer my work.
- I want to help small and independent businesses with visual content to have some material to market upon reopening. I’ll offer free trials for these businesses and discounted work to support the costs, I don’t want to see these unique places disappear, and I feel I can help with my work and career experience.
Alongside the efforts to help businesses here in Prague, I still dream of becoming a professional landscape photographer one day. It’s a dream, but everyone has to have something high to aim for, and this is it for me. I could only imagine how amazing it would be to travel to different parts of the world and selling prints from my favorite places. But for now, most of my landscape work will be available to purchase on picfair.
What’s in your camera bag these days?
Probably one of the most frequent questions amongst photographers!
I’m a minimalist when it comes to equipment, and here’s why: I am not a professional photographer, I don’t have massive amounts of disposable income, and I don’t like to be carrying a million and one things I may or may not need. If you go out as a new photographer and purchase three lenses, two bodies, and six filters, you won’t even know where to begin. I learned this from an old work friend, and she could not have been closer to the truth! The magic is in every knuck and cranny of each piece of equipment you pick up, don’t ruin it by flooding yourself with so much chaos, it’s an expensive mistake.
Look at what you want to get into as a photographer, and then research what will work best for you. Portrait photography is more about the ‘Bokeh life,’ so you’ll be looking more at lenses with a really low aperture to let all that light in, creating those smooth blurring backgrounds to help your subject stand out. This while a landscape photographer will be looking at a different specification, such as the lens’s focal length.
The other factor is money, which is the hardest thing to evaluate, it’s the balance between ‘need vs. want.’ Be sure to stay within budget and don’t throw money at something you’ll use in 5% of your work, you’ll be selling it in 3 months.
So, what do I have?
- Fujifilm X-T2
- Fujifilm XF 18-55mm F/2.8-4.0 R LM OIS – This is the only body and lens I have used all year, and since I have switched from a mobile camera. I love Fujifilm for their setup and old school feel, it didn’t take me long to get to grips with the settings, and I love how it feels. The 18-55mm is one of the best kit lenses out there, you get a lot for your money, and the quality of glass is fantastic. The lens is also versatile, giving f/2.8 at 18mm and f/4.0 at 55mm, so there is a lot you can do with just the one lens, and it’s incredibly durable.
- Vanguard Espod CX 203AP tripod – This is a great beginner’s tripod if you are happy to part with around €85. Compact, versatile, and a fair price. I would recommend this for anyone looking to find a tripod to last them a few years. Easy to maneuver and quick to flip between landscape and portrait.
- Polaroid 58MM CPL filter – An essential part of photographers line up, especially for those shooting in broad daylight or landscape photographers looking to up their game and quality. Polaroid has served me well, a reasonable price, and durable.
- Polaroid 58MM ND9 filter – A great tool to help get those long exposures flowing past 15/20 seconds in low light conditions. Silky water, light trails, or blurry clouds you’ll need one of these. Again, Polaroid, low cost, durable.
- MANFROTTO MTPIXI-B – Small and mighty and a great tool to keep in your bag at all times. It might be worth buying a portrait adapter for it with a ¼” connector as it doesn’t quite shoot in portrait, but it’s a great way of setting your camera down for a vlog or long exposure without carrying around a bulky tripod. Steady and so is the price, €20.
- External wire shutter – This nifty piece of kit is excellent for ensuring quality when taking long exposure shots or setting up a time-lapse. There are all sorts of external shutters you can buy, and if you are doing any form of long exposure photography, you’ll need one of these: no camera shake, no hassle. Helpful tip, If you have any stabilization on your lens, I’d recommend turning it off. It can interfere with the picture and cause a tiny bit of shake.
What software and platforms do you use for your photography?
Post-processing is a big part of photography, considering that there is so much software to use and a million ways to use it these days. Feeling a little lost? Don’t worry, depending on what you are doing will help you decide what you need. Trying to be a digital artist with sky replacements and layered snow filters? Adobe Photoshop will be your friend for life. For me, I used to be a bit heavy-handed on the editing front, and that’s relatively normal in the early days when you are excited to bring in so much color to your shots, but it takes time to use all the software. You can destroy an image with over editing in a matter of minutes, so don’t ruin a shot you spent two hours traveling to and waiting in the cold for.
For me, I use two pieces of software; Adobe Lightroom and Unfold. I use Adobe Lightroom for all my editing needs. I use many gradients and masks, and the recent updates to help color grading in the shadows and highlight is fantastic. There is so much to use, and I think, as an amateur photographer, it’s perfect for near enough everything.
Unfold is there for Instagram stories; it helps framing a subject better than Instagram, with white and black frames and some great font to experiment with.
What is the most rewarding part of being a photographer for you?
Being able to look at what is rewarding is essential to progression; if it’s not rewarding, then why are you doing it, right?
For me, it’s all about the experience! I’ve seen some fantastic places, met many people, and heard incredible stories in the time I have been photographing.
Enjoying the moment and being able to capture them through the lens of your camera and looking back in years to come thinking, “Do you remember this? What an amazing trip”. It’s always fun and games in the hospitality sector, especially with the unforgettable characters that work here in Prague; they are a barrel of laughs.
What is your favorite location to shoot?
As 2020 unfolded, it was clear that travel would be on hold for the foreseeable future, but as depressing as the situation is, I did have a silver lining. I ended up being confined to my favorite city to shoot in, Prague.
There is so much here, Historical architecture dating back to the 12th century and further, along with modern architecture with incredible design like ‘Tančící dům’ (Dancing house – the architecture was designed to depict a pair of dancers). I’ve been living here for nearly two years, and I am yet to discover all the hidden gems tucked away in the Czech capital.
What is your best memory as a photographer?
I have a fond memory in the company of two comrades on the coast of Dorset, UK. I was starting to get into the photography game, and I wanted to go and take some close up shots of these incredible waves crashing into the side of the harbor. Of course, I got too close, nearly losing my phone to the sea along with my sunglasses as an ‘unexpected’ wave caught me off guard.
Whenever I scroll back through my Instagram grid and see this shot, I still remember the bitterly cold water slapping me in the face and my friends standing 5 meters behind me, laughing and shaking their heads.
What makes the difference between a good image and an iconic image?
The world of photography is ever-growing, and with that comes a high saturation of iconic images. But just because a picture is iconic, it doesn’t mean it can’t be your creation.
Landscape photography is full of iconic images; New York City skyline, Eiffel Tower, Christ the Redeemer, Sydney Opera House, the list goes on. But you can see in so many of these images that they have the same feel, and most of them just fade away without any real thought. Being creative is the key to being unique.
Spending so much time in a capital city has taught me one thing, don’t follow the tourists. If you want unique work, you need to find a unique location and create an abstract or a new angle. That’s how you can make an iconic image your own.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
When it comes to being influenced in my work, I haven’t done much in reading or research, but I can tell you two people have influenced me heavily, Peter Lik and Peter Mckinnon.
Peter Lik, probably one of the most renowned and famous landscape photographers the world has ever known. You can find his work worldwide, and he has been an inspiration to such a large community of aspiring landscape photographers.
Peter Mckinnon, YouTuber and also an inspirational photographer and filmmaker from Canada. He has been my constant inspiration since getting back into photography, and he is doing the same for so many creators. The power felt through his channel is encaptivating, and he is someone who teaches the passion and rules of photography that I can relate to. Along with his passion, his work is fantastic, and his ‘bucket shot’ video inspired me to look at my own goals. I have my bucket shot, Charles Bridge on a foggy morning with a burning sunrise.
Advice for other photographers who want to get started or are just beginning?
So through this interview, I’ve given hints and tips to those looking for advice in the field of photography, here’s a round-up.
- Enjoy it. Yes, there will be ups and downs, mistakes, and progression, but it needs to be enjoyable above it all.
- Take your time. Are you stuck in a rut, can’t catch a break, feel like you’re lost? Take a step back and put the camera down. At some points, we can find ourselves obsessed and get lost in a world of frustration and throwing even more time and effort into our work. But the best thing to do is have a break, give yourself time to reevaluate your situation, and come up with new ideas without the camera. Take the time to inspire yourself again and remind yourself why you love to be a photographer.
- Progression. Please do your best always to learn something new, it may not apply too much of what you do, but it is stimulating and could end up in your favor later in your career. It will also keep you interested, especially when you find yourself at a loose end and need something to keep you moving forward.
- Be prepared. I have said that preparation is key to several things, so I’ll reiterate. Preparation will enable you to make fewer mistakes and further your progression.
Ensure you are not leaving it until the last minute to prepare yourself for a photoshoot you’ve waited three months for.
Please don’t leave anything to chance when it comes to clients, not only equipment but be covered on the legal front.
Ensure you have a contract, regardless of how small the gig is; it’s important to you and the client.